Oct 2, 2016
Raleigh Mennonite Church
What is faith? That’s the question that animates the Gospel lesson today. What is faith and how do you get? How do you keep it? Get more of it? Or are those the right questions to ask?
Throughout Luke we see Jesus pushing up against an idea about religion assumed in these first questions. It’s a constant struggle because this idea of faith as a commodity was in the cultural water of the day. To treat faith as a commodity means that faith is like a possession—something that can be given and taken away, banked and used, stored up and spent. This way of thinking about faith was all around Jesus, but most noticeable in the religious conviction of the Pharisees.
It’s for this reason that the Pharisees are consistently the antagonists in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus spends a lot of time calling them out as an example of bad behavior, bad belief, a way of doing religion that misunderstands the Law and takes advantage of the poor.
If there is one thing Jesus cannot stand it is when his own disciples can’t break out of this framework, when they replicate the Pharisees position of faith as commodity and transfer it to him. And that is what our Gospel story is about today. “Increase our faith!” the disciples exclaim.
The disciples are mimicking what they see around them. For the Pharisees rule-keeping was the way to get more faith. You got points, money in your religion bank, by being good at following the rules, coming up with more rules, holding others to the rules. And the most important rule of all was to keep separate, to remove yourself from the stain of sin. That’s where you could really rack up dollars.
Piety as a value, something you earn, earned through separation from and exclusion of the vulnerable – that’s what Jesus doesn’t like about the way the Pharisees go about their religious lives.
Jesus’ disciples are part of this culture. People think about religion as being pious, of relating to the Law and to God as a way to receive faith, to increase it. The disciples take that same paradigm and turn it towards Jesus. Give us more, they say. We believe in who you are. You are the Lord, the Lord of the Law, the one whom God sent. So now you can switch the banking rules. You can give out the faith. And when we get some of it, then we’ll show those Pharisees who is truly pious, who is truly religious. We’ll be the ones who are honored.
Jesus is frustrated by this response. Guys, come on! we imagine him saying. Faith isn’t something you get. It isn’t a form of currency to be increased! Faith is a particular disposition in the world.
Jesus tells them faith is like taking a set place in a society where there are ways of life, particular work you are given to do because of the role you play. You don’t get a reward out of it. There’s nothing earned. To join with Jesus means you work for free because what you’re doing isn’t actually work, even when it’s hard, even when it demands. Discipleship is devotion. The disciples want a paycheck, but Jesus wants companions—people who will be by his side during his trials, and people who will gather around a table, who will draw near.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus shows the disciples what this means through his life, through his ministry. A disposition of faith means putting your body next to other people’s bodies, in particular the bodies of the most vulnerable. Jesus, God in flesh comes to earth and he puts his body in the vicinity of the bodies of victims, of sinners and tax collectors, of the sick and disabled, women and children, of laborers, of lepers, of sex workers, of the poor – all those whose bodies will not conform to the dictates of the Law.
It’s the opposite of what the Pharisees have lifted up as good religion. Instead of separation as a way of amassing faith, Jesus shows us that faith is putting our bodies alongside vulnerable people, drawing near to the people Jesus draws close to.
And when Jesus does this, it eventually gets him killed. In Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is put to death on the accusation of sedition – he draws so close that he ends up looking like a political zealot. “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place,” to Jerusalem, the capital, his accusers say. Jesus dies under Roman law because he looks like the oppressed. This is what faith looks like – proximity to the vulnerable, unto death.
James Cone takes this one step further. Cone is the father of black liberation theology. And for him God does not simply draw near to the bodies of the oppressed. Jesus is God put into these bodies. Jesus is enfleshed in the oppressed. For Cone, as a black man in racist America, this means that Jesus is black—as black as Cone’s own body, skin like his skin, flesh like his flesh.
I passed his text, A Black Theology of Liberation, on the church bookshelf this past week. As I picked it up and thumbed through the pages I was struck by how contemporary his words sound, how relevant they were in light of the videotaped shooting deaths of black men we learn about almost every week. Cones words, written in 1970 could be written today.
Cone tells us that, if we want to look for the body of Jesus today, if we want to try and understand the body to which Jesus drew near and entered 2000 years ago, we can see a Jesus who is black. Jesus, Cone tells us, is the “Oppressed one whose earthly existence was bound up with the oppressed of the land” (202). The body of Jesus is the body of Terence Crutcher, it is the body of Keith Lamont Scott.
What I have learned, what white people have learned, is that as we encounter this Jesus, in putting our bodies in proximity to the oppressed, we must make ourselves receptive to anger. I imagine that most of us are in line with a Jesus who turns away from a payment system of faith to a disposition of discipleship.
But the riskiness of the call of discipleship is that we will not resist the anger that comes from those to whom we draw near. Putting my white body in proximity to suffering, to those vulnerable to police violence, racial profiling, unfair drug sentencing, red-lining, voter discrimination – it means putting my life in the way of confrontation of our witting or unwitting participation in racism.
I think that often times Christians in the Mennonite tradition sense imminent danger in anger. We sense that anger should be stifled, that anger is inherently violent. I also sense that the Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel is calling us to a discipleship where we can receive the anger of another.
This is where Jesus words become difficult for me, when I am asked to “stand still and listen to another woman’s (or man’s) voice delineate an agony I do not share, one to which I myself have contributed” (Sisters Outsider, 128).
Audre Lorde has helped me give language to the challenge of Jesus to stand near to the anger of my black sisters and brothers, even as I find voice for my own anger in a sexist world. She reminds me, “it is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (130). When we turn away from anger, we are turning away from the oppressed and insights of these stories. Rather than danger, for Lorde, “anger is loaded with information.” Anger is a spark, a chisel, a flame.
Lorde sees anger as productive, as a kind of miracle of power and growth. We can hear the response Jesus gives the disciples when they ask to have their faith increased. Jesus tells them “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.” Somehow drawing near, putting our bodies in proximity to vulnerable bodies, not resisting the anger of the oppressed, making space for anger without hatred – somehow this disposition of life will actually do something, it creates something new through our difference. It could cause even a tree to flourish in the sea.
It is World Communion Sunday and I am reminded today not only of the beautiful diversity of the universal church, and of our common bond in Christ, but also of the oppression of Christians and their neighbors around our world. Today I am reminded of the anger that wells up in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as the U.S. continues its unrelenting campaign of drone strikes. I am reminded of our ignorance as tens of thousands of our sisters and brothers are killed by militant groups in Nigeria. I am reminded of those in our own country who continue to suffer from racism while the white church cowers in silence, refuses to draw near, or condemns the anger of suffering.
As we celebrate Communion with a world-wide church, we do this in remembrance of Jesus, the one who calls us not to accumulation of faith, but to bodies drawing near to vulnerable bodies, bodies drawing near to anger and hurt, a church ready to see how this kind of faith is, in fact, miraculous.